It has been a year of anniversaries at Paramount. The studio turned 75, with appropriate fanfares; "Wings" turned 60, and my neighbor, A. C. Lyles, celebrated his 50th year with Paramount. Lyles started in the mail room, moved through publicity and became a producer of low-budget Westerns and then of television. He is still producing but he is now a sort of unofficial studio historian as well.
The other day he invited me to have lunch in the commissary with Charles (Buddy) Rogers, the last of the stars of "Wings," and to watch the film again on the big screen.
William Wellman's large-scale drama about World War I was the first movie to win an Academy Award for best picture. As part of the studio's anniversary celebration, "Wings" has been released as a videocassette with a vigorous new organ accompaniment by Gaylord Carter, a pioneer maker of music for the silents, whose own career began in 1922.
(When Paramount sold off its pre-1948 film library, it luckily retained rights to its silents. "Wings" is thus one of a package of six anniversary cassettes, also including Erich Von Stroheim's "The Wedding March" and "The Last Command" and Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 version of "The Ten Commandments," all with Carter at a mighty Wurlitzer.
Rogers, dapper and vigorous at 83, divides his time between Palm Springs and Beverly Hills. He built a smaller home on the Pickfair estate before the rest of the property was sold to Jerry Buss. Mary Pickford, whom he married in 1937, a year after her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks, helped plan the new house before she died in 1979. Rogers remarried five years ago.
Over lunch Rogers was remembering his early days in Olathe, Kan., where his father ran the weekly Olathe Mirror. Rogers delivered papers and learned to run a Linotype.
"I loved music," Rogers says, "but I never gave a thought about acting, and Hollywood could have been a million miles away." At the University of Kansas in Lawrence, he earned $10 on Friday nights and $15 on Saturday nights playing in dance bands. "I had a raccoon coat, a Model T Ford, two or three girls and I was in a fraternity. Heaven!" He plays trumpet and trombone, the reeds, drums, piano and accordion.
It was his father who passed along the word that Paramount was recruiting nationally for 10 young men and 10 young women to be the founding students at a studio acting school in Astoria, Long Island.
"I said it was a stunt and I wasn't interested. My father wrote me again and said, 'Please! Do it for my sake.' I sent in some pictures and darned if Paramount didn't send a crew of three to Lawrence. 'Now laugh, now cry, now turn around,' that's what I remember about the test."
But within a week the studio called and told him to report to Astoria to start classes. "They taught us how to do makeup, how to take falls, how to ride a horse, how to act with our eyes (it was all silent, of course) . . . Oh, yes, and how to hold a kiss for three minutes without laughing. I liked that."
One day Adolph Zukor came to class in person and asked Rogers if he had argyle socks and plus-fours (or golfing knickers). Natty then as now, Rogers did, and a limousine picked him up the next morning and delivered him to a golf course, where he played W. C. Field's son-in-law in a brief scene for "So's Your Old Man."
The whole class appeared in another film, called "Fascinating Youth." So far as Rogers recalls, the only other one of the 20 who achieved fame was Thelma Todd.
Rogers was then told he'd been chosen to play Ronald Colman's kid brother in "Beau Geste." He was outfitted in New York and, en route to Hollywood, stopped off in Olathe. "I'm embarrassed to say it, but I walked up and down the main street in my Foreign Legion uniform for two days."
When he got off the train in Pasadena, he was told he had been uncast in "Beau Geste." "Oh, boy, I didn't like that at all. I said I was going right back to Olathe. But they said I'd been cast in a really big one, 'Old Ironsides.' " He was uncast from that, too, even before shooting began, but before he could head for the train station he was asked to have lunch with Wellman, who was about to shoot "Wings." Wellman agreed that Rogers would co-star with Richard Arlen and Clara Bow.
"They loaded us all on a special train for San Antonio, and put us up at the St. Anthony Hotel.
"Oh, Wellman was tough," Rogers says. "He'd double-cross us to get the emotions he wanted. The night before Dick Arlen and I were to have a big fight in training camp, Wellman took me aside and said: 'Arlen's no friend of yours. You should hear what he's saying.' Turned out he'd told Dick the same thing about me. Well, it made a good fight."
The flying was done at Kelly Field and little of it could be faked, in those days before back-projection and other screen tricks. Rogers' flight instructor was a young second lieutenant named Van, whose subsequent career went well: He was Hoyt Vandenberg, a four-star general in World War II.
"We were our own cameraman a lot of the time," Rogers remembers. "There was a fixed camera mounted in front of us and at the right time, Van would scrunch out of sight in the rear cockpit and I'd press the button that turned on the camera."
Although "Wings" is essentially an aviation film, with Arlen and Rogers as hometown friends flying against the Germans (including a figure modeled on Von Richthofen), Wellman also created some remarkable trench warfare scenes, with hundreds of extras, many of them borrowed from the Air Force.
The air crashes, truly spectacular, were staged by a daring stunt flier named Dick Joyce (who broke his neck, though without permanent damage, in one of the crack-ups).
"Wings" was also the memorable debut of Gary Cooper, who has one brief but unforgettable scene as a tent-mate of Rogers and Arlen, who walks outside to crash and die. "You could tell he was going to be a star, but there were those around the studio who said he was too thin. Mr. Zukor himself knew better. 'Too thin?' he said, 'Why, every woman in America will want to nourish him,' and that's about the way it worked out."
The shoot lasted nine months and the film cost $750,000, expensive for the time. Rogers had started at $85 a week, with $10 deducted for a suit the studio bought him. Off the success of "Wings," he did five to seven films a year, and was loaned out to do "My Best Girl" with Mary Pickford, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
He remembers well the panic when sound came in and the word went out that John Gilbert's voice didn't record well. "We were all being tested, and four of us--Coop, Dick Arlen, Jack Oakie and I--made a solemn vow that if any one of us failed, the others would each give 10% of their salaries to help him out. Luckily we didn't have to. We all made it."
We sat in the screening room, watching "Wings" reach its emotional finish, looking at Arlen, Clara Bow, Roscoe Carns, Coop and the Buddy Rogers of 23. At the end Rogers was quietly crying. "It's not the movie," he said. "It's just that they're all gone, all gone."
He blew his nose and said: "In a few days I'm going back to the U of Kansas for Homecoming. I get to present an award to another alum: Don Johnson of 'Miami Vice.' It's called 'The Buddy Award.' Isn't that great?
"My mother used to say: 'You'd have been healthier, happier and richer if you'd stayed in Olathe."
Buddy Rogers shook his head and smiled.